Auf Wiedersehen, Pet

Sunday, June 2, 2002 by and

The return of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet has been a long time coming. A long time in that, rumours of the new “Guten Tag, Pet” have been circulating for almost two years now, and – of course – the last series finished 16 years ago.

However, the impetus behind bringing the boys back is unclear. As a product, ‘Pet hasn’t exactly been high profile since 1986. Indeed it could be argued that it was more a product of its time than any of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ other vehicles (except, perhaps, Going Straight). Nevertheless, the prospect of the Magnificent Seven’s return has generally been greeted with affection.

A trick often used in drama to expand characters is to have them talk about their own past. These moments usually seem unreal, as Dr Darcy Tyler in Neighbours reminisces about some formative event we’ve never seen, and are only hearing about now to justify some characteristic tic the scriptwriter wants to draw attention to. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet scores big in this department, however, with the characters evoking a shared past (and let’s face it, when old friends reunite that tends to be all they talk about) which we the viewers have actually witnessed too. The weight these characters carry is implicit from the off. And whilst it lends them credibility it also challenges the writers to ensure consistency in Dennis, Neville, Oz et al.

Clement and La Frenais have commented that since writing the second series of ‘Pet, they’ve barely stepped into the UK, and have had to undertake some research to catch the current idioms and preoccupations of this country (Barry’s desire to meet Ant and Dec at the ceremonial last crossing of the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge shows that they’ve got a pretty good handle in that regard). Where the writers’ changed circumstance could have affected the characters, it was pleasing to discover that the return of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet felt right. No gratuitous set pieces or scene setting were required to re-establish the Boys, and all slipped back into our lives seamlessly.

Well, almost. The inclusion of Wyman, whilst in no way overly detrimental to the programme, did seem a little superfluous. It was almost as though there was a belief that for the alchemy to work there must be seven blokes billeted together in a hut. That the second series mainly featured just six of the characters (due to the death of Gary Holton during the filming) should have belied the myth, proving that the dynamic of Barry, Neville, Moxey, Oz, Bomber and Dennis was sufficient in itself. Unfortunately Wyman never seemed more than an afterthought and if there was some expectation that his inclusion would lend the programme an additional theme exploring the generation gap, this seemed pretty much an afterthought too.

Despite our preoccupations with character, plot was what this series of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was about, and to a far greater extent than ever before. Whereas the 1980s episodes were based around the seven characters’ responses to the situations they found themselves in (emotionally and politically) this time around ‘Pet was more of a caper. The programme moved from situation to situation, rather than response to response. The effect was like watching Auf Wiedersehen, Pet: The Movie, with the stakes upped leaving less room for detail. As a result, the drama was arguably less engaging on a personal level – but perhaps this is a reflection of 21st century television (or at least Clement and La Frenais’ take on it).

And whilst being more based around plot, this version of ‘Pet also essayed more sensationalist stories than ever before. Previously we’d seen plots around accusations of petty theft or broken marriages; this time out we had hitmen, drug smuggling, crooked MPs and an audacious and epic scheme to move a bridge from Middlesbrough to Arizona. Although ‘Pet echoed previous series in that it rolled along with sub-stories that were played out over a couple of episodes, there did seem to be a deficiency in dealing satisfactorily with the many big topics the series was saddled with. Giant obstacles were erected, only to be brushed aside with apparent ease an episode or so later. This final episode suffered badly in that regard, with the introduction of a new character, DI Andy Hayley, whose presence resolved all three outstanding storylines (Barry’s drugs charge, Grainger’s attempts to blackmail the group and Moxey’s involvement in a potential murder trial) in less than 50 minutes.

Despite the shortcomings in the plot, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet has been the best “new” British drama on TV this year. Its return, whilst critically not quite living up to its previous two series, has still been very welcome indeed. And objectively, isn’t it extraordinary that this programme can remain off the air for the best part of 20 years, with no real fanbase ticking over in the interim, and return to television reclaiming something equivalent to the popularity it enjoyed first (and second) time around?

It’s pleasing to note that excellent characterisation weathers the years well.


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